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Why words need work and work needs words

Why should we make an effort to get words right? After all, it's expensive, time-consuming and often difficult to quantify in terms of return. Or so the complaint goes.

But the answer is simple and comes in a worrying statistic in a recent Confederation of British Industry survey on literacy and numeracy in the workplace. The CBI found that more than a fifth of all companies have to put new employees through some form of training because they are illiterate, or innumerate.

Now that's fine for organisations like The Words which offers training in how to write, but if you're Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco, who has bemoaned the fact that companies like his are too often 'left to pick up the pieces' for the failure of society to provide people equipped with the necessary skills for the workplace, then it's a pain in the budget.

The CBI found that 22 per cent of new workers needed literacy training, 18 per cent numeracy training and four out of every ten needed to improve their IT skills, usually because of poor ability with words. With all that relearning going on, who's left to mind the shop?

And it's not just a question of lost manhours. There is the problem of items being wrongly sold because they're wrongly identified. One business reported losing money because workers could not understand where to put decimal places.

After Labour's 13 years of investment in Britain's schools, even the most cynical commentator might be expecting to see some sort of improvement. But in politics it's all to easy to put all the blame on the education system and its servants, the teachers. It suits the needs of one party versus another to portray itself as the saviour of schools. At the moment, much hope is being floated for the new coalition government's plans to adopt the Swedish model of state-funded independent schools to drive up standards in England, even though the Swedes themselves have pulled back from the policy.

In the real world, things are never that simple. The problem starts long before a child enters school, and it reflects a deeper malaise.bedtime story

There was an interesting picture of it drawn by research carried out by Oxford University Press among primary school teachers which revealed that many thousands of children start school never having had a story read to them.That's hugely important, because the earlier a child is introduced to reading, books, and stories, the greater advantage they have in life and the better literacy they attain.

Being read to makes a child more likely to succeed because their language skills and imagination are boosted,and their ability to grasp concepts and develop abstract thought developed. In simple terms, as one of the UK government's educational advisers, Pie Corbett, said: 'The best writers in the class are always the ones who are avid readers". And that avidity begins with being read to.

It would be all too simple to jump to a conclusion that these results reflect socio-economic class, with the less-read-to children coming from poorer homes where opportunities are very much harder to create.

But as we know, the world isn't that simple.

Perhaps the most shocking finding by the OUP was that this disadvantage being programmed into children at the very start of their lives often comes from being left in front of the television set, often by busy middle-class parents who couldn't be bothered to read a bedtime story.

The result? As one teacher quoted in the research said, children were far more likely to know Disney cartoon plots than the sort of tales that will grip and develop their imaginations.